FIGHT CLUB: the United States Studies Centre

The United States Studies Centre is the premier department in the country for American studies. But its teaching style and course structure don’t please everyone. Lane Sainty and Angus Reoch fight it out.

Not everyone is drinking the USSC kool-aid. Not everyone is drinking the USSC kool-aid.

FOR

When tossing up Arts majors, American Studies is often considered the even less-useful equivalent of a Government major. Socialists and Canadians alike question why anyone would spend so much time learning about the United States, and the mere thought of the Tea Party deters the rest.

But it’s not for nothing that USSC courses were described in the 2011 Counter Course Handbook as ‘some of the best subjects that you can do at uni’. Smart, practical assessment, a contemporary approach to content, and interactive lectures are all aspects of USSC courses that make them well worth taking.

“US in the World” considers the United States from a global perspective, looking at various US foreign policy struggles. The course assessment requires students to write two 1000-word opinion pieces and a 2500-word policy report. Some deplored this atypical assessment, finding it difficult to squeeze their thoughts about the rise of China into a short, snappy, argumentative op-ed. But many enjoyed the opportunity to break free from essay format and write something practical, honing skills that may actually come in useful later in life.

The course also featured a steady progression of impressive guest speakers, including the Hon. Malcolm Turnbull and the editor of the Australian Spectator, Tom Switzer. Time was allocated during each lecture for students to ask questions after the speaker had finished their written address, providing an interactive and engaging atmosphere. The content was interesting and accessible (as opposed to the impenetrably dense academic readings found in far too many subjects) and tutors really knew their shit, so to speak.

If there is one criticism that people regularly level at the USSC, it is that the Centre is blindly pro-America, unwilling to criticise US political decisions (or, for that matter, capitalism). I disagree strongly. There is no doubt that those teaching the course are enthusiastic about the United States and its role in the world, but to argue that this translates into biased academic argument is incorrect and unfair.

If you’re still not convinced, USSC lecturer David Smith looks more like Sideshow Bob than any other living person, but is considerably less maniacal. LS

Not everyone is drinking the USSC kool-aid.

AGAINST

You’re a politically savvy government major, you’ve studied a lot of international relations, but “Politics of China” sounds a bit dull and you’re at an impasse. And there it is: sleek, seductive, modern, all those buzz words – the USSC calls you, beckoning for your patronage.

But friends, do not repeat my mistake. For beyond the superficial thrill of seeing the co-founder of MTV or a New York Times columnist interviewed, the USSC’s units are likely to offer you very little.

Its style of teaching trains you in little save for the art of tabloid polemics and pithy one-liners. After a while, you begin to realise that journalists like Thomas Friedman are often highly simplistic in their analysis. You realise that softball interviews with John Howard actually tell you very little about the Australia/US alliance and its relation to 9/11. And you realise the slew of Democratic strategists, speech writers, and ambassadors wheeled out simply operate within the veritable echo chamber that is Washington D.C.

I don’t write this to belittle the guests I was fortunate enough to see interviewed in “US In The World”. The issue is that by building a course around interviews with figures who are very much from the establishment, the USSC effectively circumvents the point of all social sciences, and particularly politics: critical thinking.

By conspicuously lacking any broad intellectual theme, instead encouraging you to “create your own topic”, students are not pushed out of their comfort zone.

By relying upon interviews and star power, in lieu of a rigorous syllabus, a thick reader, and proper lecturing, the USSC fails to address the underlying roots and causes of how and why events happen, which is the whole reason for studying politics in the first place!

The role of academia is to get beyond the headlines and develop a more sophisticated understanding of the world. If this sounds too boring or too complicated, and Barack Obama to you is just a nice guy who has been misunderstood and deserves your unquestioning devotion, then by all means, study at the USSC, swallow the blue pill and fight for Team Democrat or Team Republican.

However, if you care about honest debate and intellectual stimulation, then for your own sake, take the other pill. AR

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